Since Kathy and the kids have been away, it has fallen to me to serve as primary caregiver for Martin, our Guinea Pig. Martin lives in a cage in the mud room, and looks up hopefully whenever anyone passes by (it is actually a fairly heavy-traffic area). Now that the family is away, his days are a bit quieter, and I expect he gets a little bored.
Guinea pigs are strange creatures, driven almost exclusively by the twin passions of consuming and eliminating food. Not far beneath the surface, however, lurks a strong desire to explore the world through the art of nibbling. I worry about Martin sometimes, thinking he doesn’t taste enough of his surroundings … he’s sort of a homebody in that way. And so, when it came time for me to mow the lawn (again), I guessed that he might enjoy being outside in the grass and bright sunshine. Our backyard is fenced and Martin is hardly a long-distance sprinter. “What could possibly go wrong?” I wondered.
It turns out that the cavy (the shortened form of Cavia porcellus, the scientific name of a Guinea Pig) and the modern lawnmower don’t mix. Don’t panic … I didn’t hit him with the mower; this is not that kind of blog. I took great care to keep at least 30 feet away from him … I didn’t bring him out until I had mowed a wide swath of the backyard. Even though I was quite some distance away, Martin cowered away from the noise of the mower and sought shelter by pressing himself up against a small vent in the foundation. “Fine,” I thought, “when I’m done cutting the grass, he’ll get over it and maybe he can enjoy some clover.” The next time I passed by, Martin was gone without so much as a squeak. I felt sure I would have noticed any large birds of prey descending on him, and the yard was empty of small furry things. “Now where has that rascal gotten to?” I fumed.
Close examination revealed that the wire mesh in the crawlspace vent was not firmly fixed. I deduced that Martin, in curiosity or panic or sheer contrariness, had pushed on the mesh and forced entry into the crawlspace below the house. What possessed him to do it, I don’t know, but he seems to have jumped down at least two feet into the dark, damp space between the house and the ground. Personally, I would have taken my chances with the lawnmower, but I guess it takes all kinds. Looking through the vent, I could see his beady little eyes looking back at me from the dubious safety of the crawlspace … he seemed a little smug, I thought.
I stuck my arm down through the hole (barely large enough for someone with biceps like mine) and waggled it about hopefully, determined that if I caught even a whisker, Martin was coming out. Sensing this, the wily Guinea Pig kept just out of reach, and I managed to scratch up my arm quite badly on the sharp edges of the wire mesh. I thought I heard him snicker. You’ve reached a new low point in life when a Guinea Pig snickers at you.
Visions of tetanus dancing in my head, I sat back and pondered. Although Martin is a bit of a bother, he is well-loved by the children, especially Rachel. It seemed that I had only a few options:
- Let Martin starve to death under the house.
- Try to entice him out with blandishments and carrots.
- Establish an official policy such that Martin’s new home is under the house.
- Go in and get him.
A member of the rodent order, cavies (rhymes with ‘rabies’, now I wonder why that popped into my mind?) will tend to favor dark, tight places. When permitted, Martin will hide under anything, the darker and more screened from sight, the better. Not too long ago, he escaped Rachel and hid between the backyard fence and an old dog house left by our landlord. The kids tried various enticements to get him out (including lettuce and clover) but he craftily seized their offerings and scuttled back into his newfound lair. Eventually, they managed to catch him, but I felt that my prospects were poor, matching wits against him in this manner.
So, how to get him out of there? I am an extreme claustrophobe, and the entrance to the crawlspace, although technically large enough for my bulk, was comparatively tiny. “Maybe he would crawl out on his own”, I speculated, somewhat plaintively. Taking two five-foot fence boards, I laid them down, one through the vent and one at the entrance to the crawlspace, forming cute little ramps or walkways that he could use to crawl out, if the mood struck him.
Figure the odds of that happening. I finished mowing the lawn, and still, no Martin appeared. I put his little house in view of the top of one of the ramps, hoping that if he did crawl up the ramp, he would see his beloved home and scuttle into it. I placed his food dish nearby, and rolled some of his food pellets down the ramp hopefully. I looked at the diminutive crawlspace access panel again, and shuddered.
Some years ago, a friend offered to help me install phone lines in my new house in the Duckabush. Using my nearly-forgotten Army low-crawl skills, I spent a few entertaining minutes ‘helping’ to run the lines beneath the house. What had seemed a modest-sized house from above became a mansion below … it gave me a new perspective on the generous proportions of our home. Whenever I would begin to feel panicked by a sense of the house falling down and trapping me beneath (which was most of the time), I would look over my shoulder at the comforting bright rectangle of light framed by the access panel for reassurance.
At some point my friend left a pair of wire cutters at the furthest corner under the house. Not wishing to abandon them, even though we had already crawled out and dusted ourselves off, he prepared to re-enter the crawlspace. Feeling responsible and grateful for his help, I gathered my courage and insisted that I be allowed to retrieve them.
As I traversed the space under the house, I began to imagine all kinds of terrible things. How well did I know this guy, anyway? Suppose he is actually a diabolical fiend, and this is his chance to trap and bury me alive? What if the house is unstable on its foundation, and suddenly settles, pinning me under some massive beam? Suppose I have a seizure or heart attack, and cannot be retrieved? Is it really true that there are no poisonous snakes on the Olympic Peninsula? I had not yet reached the halfway point before the panic overwhelmed me, and I scurried for the exit like a terrified Guinea Pig escaping, say, a mower (except in the opposite direction). “I’ll buy you new wire cutters!” I glibly promised in horror, as I extricated myself from the darkness and savored the feel of sunshine on my face. My poor friend had to crawl the 60′ under the house to retrieve the wire cutters himself.
As the afternoon waned, the idea of leaving Martin in his new habitat began to seem more attractive. “Maybe he could live down there,” I mused. “We could put food and water down through the crawlspace door, and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about letting him starve to death.” But I wasn’t sure that the floor of the crawlspace was flat … for all I knew, he had fallen into some cavy-sized pit and couldn’t get out. I imagined my oldest daughter’s shock and condemnation when she returned from Michigan and discovered that I had permitted her beloved pet to starve to death … Rachel can be quite stern when she thinks she holds the moral high ground.
“Maybe I could get another Guinea Pig …” I speculated resourcefully, remembering a similar ploy in the Steve Martin movie, My Blue Heaven. But Martin (our Guinea Pig, not Steve) is a fairly unique specimen, and is just cheeky enough to come wandering out once I had committed myself to the dishonest course of passing off the new cavy as the genuine article. I imagined facing the tribunal of my older three children:
|“So, this is Martin, but this is also Martin?”
|“Umm, well, er, isn’t it possible they are both named Martin?”
|“Daddy, are you telling a lie?”
|“How can you punish us for telling a lie if you tell them?”
Daniel is often alert for those little inconsistencies. OK, maybe some other plan would be better. I racked my brains, but came up empty.
There was nothing for it … someone was going to have to go in and fetch that varmint, or at least give it the old ‘college try’. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be a four-year college? What about the less well-known ’3rd grade try’ or the ever-popular ‘halfhearted parent-that-doesn’t-want-to-die-trapped-under-the-house try’?
By this time I was engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, which is moving boxes from one side of the garage to the other.
(Parenthetically, I feel that my boxes are occasionally bored by their immovable state, and so I like to air them and give them a new perspective on life … sort of like helping them to ‘think out of the box’, as it were.)
I began to watch for passing children whom I might bribe to go under my house and fetch Martin, although I wasn’t sure how I could explain that to their parents:
|“So, [long explanation involving much hand-waving], what do you say? Five bucks for trying, ten bucks if you get him.”
|Neighbor child’s parent:
|“So let me get this straight. You want to send my child to crawl around in a dark, potentially glass, nail or rat-infested crawlspace, under a house that you don’t own, to retrieve a stupid Guinea Pig that you’re afraid to go and get?”
|“Um, well, not afraid exactly, it’s just that I am kinda big to be crawling around under there …”
|“Let’s go home, Johnny. Maybe next year we’ll get a good neighbor.”
As the shadows lengthened, I began to panic. How could I face my children, who had trustingly committed Martin into my care? (Practically Rachel’s last words to me had been, “Take good care of Martin, Daddy!”) I gathered my determination and changed into my least-favorite pair of jeans, all the time imagining the variety of terrible fates that awaited me under the house. As a precaution, I called Kathy’s friend Julee with instructions to send her husband over to rescue me if I didn’t call back in 15 minutes. She said she would set her timer, which I found encouraging on several levels.
Armed with a flashlight and a plastic bag, I wedged myself through the access door and began crawling along under the house. “Martin! Martin!” I called, trying to keep the rasping menace from my voice. I figured he would back into some narrow pipe and taunt me with his whiskers, after forcing me to crawl the full length and breadth of the house. Surprisingly, he was curious about my flashlight, and sauntered toward me, until he was just out of reach. Showing his true colors, he leapt away when I reached for him, staying just outside my grasp. His plan was obviously to tease me in this way until he could retreat into the aforementioned narrow pipe or other sanctuary.
It turns out that I am smarter than the average Guinea Pig (or perhaps Martin is substantially below-average). The fence board that I had shoved down through the vent was right there in front of me, and I seized it with glee. Now my reach was extended by five feet, and Martin was not prepared for this sudden technological advance. Remembering the scriptural injunction about not letting the right hand know what the left hand was doing, I craftily used the board in my right hand to scoop Martin toward the questing fingers of my left hand. Dropping the flashlight and pinning him to the ground, I stuffed him into the plastic bag and low-crawled laboriously for the access panel, chortling evilly for effect. Martin thrashed dramatically, but his heart wasn’t really in it … he was beaten, and he knew it.
Emerging mud-smeared but victorious, I put Martin in his cage and changed my clothes, flush with the heady triumph of my accomplishment, and relieved that I could face my children again. I called Julee to let her know that I required no rescue, and treated myself to a Caffeine-free Diet Coke.
Today I was thinking, maybe I should bring Martin into the garage with me while I am working there. “What could possibly go wrong?” I mused.